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Wednesday, September 27, 2000

The story of the little guy

  SYDNEY -- Listen to the changing sound of these Olympic Games and all you hear is drugs.

 There is a scandal over here and a scandal over there, and once again Olympic idealism has taken a drubbing and the sporting world seems forever turned upside down.

 It is that way when you search only to find a professional athlete, owner of a $48-million contract, who seems the most Olympian of Canadian athletes here, the one who understands what this is supposed to be, and can be.

 Away from the crying C.J. Hunters, and the gymnasts who took the wrong cough medicines, and the weightlifting cheaters, you will find a skinny, wealthy, long-armed, fuzzy-haired, smiling Canadian who doesn't just symbolize all that can still be right about the Olympics, but is living it here every day.

 Meet Steve Nash and instantly you'll feel better about yourself, about Canada, about the Olympic experience. Meet Steve Nash, and spend a few minutes listening to him, and you can dream the way he dreams, believe the way he believes.

 "This is the pinnacle of my athletic career,'' said Nash, the kid from Victoria who against all odds -- wrong country, wrong size, wrong colour -- made his way to the NBA.

 "This is the greatest thing I've ever been to.''

 And in the second week of the Olympics, long after Simon Whitfield's gold, and before Caroline Brunet's final-day kayak runs, and in the midst of all the drug whispers, the best and most uplifting Canadian story is about how one basketball player has lifted himself, carrying a team and his struggling country with him, into the rarest of stories here.

 A Canadian story of overachievement. The story of the little guy who could. We love a Canadian story with promise and hope, a story you have to be proud about. And a story about a rich guy who is humble and modest and dare we say it, Gretzky-like.

 Steve Nash has become the face of Canadian basketball at a time when Canadian basketball needed a face. He is the poster boy for the unspoiled athlete; playing here hurt, doing everything for everybody else, tossing a few anonymous dollars in the direction of his less-than-wealthy teammates, living the Athlete's Village life while his NBA friends from America are off in some posh hotel, with major security surrounding them, ordering room service.

 A quick Nash story: When the low-budget Canadian team had to travel to Montreal for an exhibition game this summer, there was some concern they weren't exactly doing it NBA-style. The team took a six-hour bus ride to Montreal and stayed the night at a Days Inn before returning home.

 "This is very different from the NBA,'' Nash said. "The NBA is a business, part of the entertainment industry. Everything is flash. This is much closer to the game I played as a kid. This is what I always wanted to do and it's everything I hoped it would be.''

 "I love it, it's just like college to me. You're in the dorms. You're hanging out together. You're going around meeting people in the Village. I pretty much fit right in.''

 What Nash is capable of -- as he showed in the shocking upset of heavily-favoured Yugoslavia that put Canada first in its round-robin pool -- is winning a game on his own. This Canadian team is the antithesis of the Canadian athletes here -- unwilling to accept mediocrity, willing to push as far as they can push, reaching for the impossible. And Nash is the leader, making everyone around him a little better than they already are.

 The ride so far has been exhilarating and bumpy with moments of elation and moments of doubt. But as the playoffs are set to begin, you have to go along with Nash for the ride, you have to see the Olympics through his wide eyes and his big heart. There is one playoff game, then another, and then the gold-medal game.

 All that seemed impossible is now possible, except a win over Vince Carter and the Americans.

 "Sports always comes down to the same intangible,'' Nash said.

 "Sacrifice. It doesn't matter what sport you're in or how you play it. You have to sacrifice something."

 He gave up his summer and his health to be the focus of a team so much in need of focus.

 Canada hasn't won a medal in basketball in 64 years.

 So forget the drugs and the poor performances, keep your eyes open and dream along with Steve Nash. "I'm leaving here,'' he said, "with something to remember.''